The cover image of Spice Girls‘ third (and probably final) album, Forever, has the girls clinging to each other as if they were holding on for dear life. It makes sense because the girl group – which debuted a mere four years ago – went through a tumultuous time by losing its most charismatic member and seeing pop trends and fashions change drastically in the subsequent years of their pop dominance. Forever was released in 2000 and saw the Girls – Mel B, Emma Bunton, Melanie C, and Victoria Beckham – enter the new millennium on shaky ground.
In hopes of a successful reinvention, the Spice Girls turned to urban-pop producers like Rodney Jerkins, the late/great LaShawn Daniels, as well as the legendary Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis to smarten and class up their image and sound. Seeing artists like TLC and Destiny’s Child made an obvious impact on the Spice Girls, resulting in the silky, monochromatic Forever, which traded the trashy, poppy fun of Spice (1996) and Spiceworld (1997) with a far more elegant and slicker album. It was a strategic move to grow their sound and tap into the digitized R&B-pop that was dominating the pop charts at the moment.
The story of Forever and its effect on the Spice Girls’ career as a band can be traced back to 31 May 1998, when unofficial Spice leader Geri Halliwell announced her departure from the group. Before her exit, Halliwell was the band’s brightest, most magnetic member. Nicknamed Ginger Spice, the charming Halliwell was the gregarious, witty cutup who stole interviews with her cheeky humor. She became a pop icon with her spangly Union Jack minidress, epitomizing Cool Britannia’s tail-end. After she left, the Spice Girls soldiered on, releasing Spiceworld’s final single, “Viva Forever” (which would become their seventh number-one UK hit). Spice Girls concluded their world tour before going on a hiatus, during which solo careers were launched with Melanie C (arguably, their strongest singer) enjoying the most success.
Reconvening as the Spice Girls was probably tough without Geri Halliwell. In the winter of 1998, they enjoyed their third Christmas number one with the lush, dramatic ballad, “Goodbye”, which was interpreted as a not-so-veiled paean to the absent Halliwell (who, like Melanie C, was enjoying a triumphant career as a solo artist). The song and the video were great teasers of what Forever would sound like. In the video – the first featuring the Girls after Halliwell’s parting – the girls are sans cartoony personae; instead, the four divas set upon an abandoned mansion on a cold winter night, dressed in gorgeous designer gowns, preening and posing, looking impossibly elegant. Each Girl wanders through the rooms, gazing forlornly at frost-encrusted figures frozen in mid-embrace.
It’s all unbearably elegant, but there’s a slight valedictory feeling to the proceedings. There’s a somewhat grim – probably unintended – Miss Havisham allusion to the setting as the camera glides through deserted rooms, frozen over from neglect. “Goodbye, my friend,” the ladies croon, adding, “It’s not the end.” And they try to convince themselves – and us – that they are “So glad we made it/time will never change it.” The most unbearably sad lyric belongs – oddly – to Victoria Beckham, whose multi-tracked solo references the Spice’s rowdy days with a melancholic, “The times when we would play about / The way we used to scream and shout / We’d never dreamt you’d go your own sweet way.”
Though “Goodbye” was a massive hit for the Spice Girls, it was the apparent beginning of the end for the group. In March of 2000, they were (somewhat strangely) honored with a lifetime achievement award at the 20th annual Brit Awards. Though they were only around for four years, the Spice Girls obviously impacted the pop music industry. Still, lifetime achievement awards are usually given to acts settling into legend/legacy artist status. It would be eight months before Forever would be released, but the award was a portent of things to come.
For Forever’s lead single, Virgin released the band’s ninth number-one hit single, “Holler”, which was released alongside “Let Love Lead the Way”. Put out as a double A-side, the tracks would be the final time that the Spice Girls reach the pole position. The sound on “Holler” indicated the musical direction the Girls were taking with Forever. From the digital strings strumming at the beginning of the song to the sampled vocal of Rodney Jerkins whispering “Darkchild 2000”, we are introduced to a new Spice Girls. Sleek drum programming skips as the Girls’ lush harmonies slip and slide on the skittery beats. The song’s title, “Holler”, is also an indicator of the Spice Girls’ attempt to zero in on the seemingly effortless cool of Black pop culture by appropriating some of its culture when using urban slang.
To mirror the slickness of Jerkins’ sound, the Girls’ appearance in the video is smooth and cool, with all black leather and smoky eye makeup. Gone were the costumes of their “Wannabe” days in which Melanie C would do high kicks while wearing a tracksuit or Emma Bunton would pop her eyes wide in babydoll dresses. Beckham’s black Gucci aesthetic had been adopted by the rest of the Spice Girls, as they looked to mature their sound and image by looking more glamorous.
The rest of Forever is built on the sounds of “Holler”. The second track, “Tell Me Why”, was a pulsing club banger with Jerkins’ patented electronic strings. The content played into the pop trope of the wronged but empowered woman who points out how much better she is off without her jerk of a guy; it feels like a less-effective companion of Jerkins’ work with Whitney Houston on “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”. In fact, much of the music on Forever sounds like urban-pop music from the late 1990s up to 2000. So, we get echoes of TLC, Destiny’s Child, Toni Braxton, Brandy, or Monica. The issue was that though the girls developed into fun, delightful singers, they weren’t as strong or distinct vocalists as the artists they were emulating. And the elegance of the music eliminated one of the band’s biggest strengths: the humor.
In their quest to become legit artists who could transcend the novelty-pop of their giggly past, the Spice Girls decided that to be mature; they must also be very tasteful and sophisticated. Some of this shift in their tone and image was a result of looking at what pop girl groups were doing at the time, which is strange because the explosion of girl groups in the late 1990s/early 2000s was a direct result of the Spice Girls’ phenomenal success. Though there were many girl groups from the UK during the waning years of the 20th century, the Spice Girls were easily the leaders, setting the standard and influencing the pop bands that followed in their tremendous wake.
Just as En Vogue set off a revival of the girl group in the early 1990s in the USA, the Spice Girls inspired a wave of the British girl group in the late 1990s. Bands like All Saints, B*Witched, Atomic Kitten, and Sugababes were immediate descendants of the Spice Girls. Though they enjoyed various levels of success, they failed to capture the hilarious, ramshackle attitude that the Spice Girls flaunted. What made the Spice Girls stand out was their infectious personalities, which often overpowered their musical limitations.
Yet, by 2000, the Girls seemed over the silly, fun image of their reign and instead looked at what their successors were doing. That reflection is found on Forever in the autobiographical “Right Back at Ya”, a defiant tune that has the Spice Girls assert their claim to pop dominance. During Mel B’s solo, she reminds listeners of their pioneering ways, rapping, “We started a trend they all imitate / A new generation of Spice we created,” assuring their fans that they’ll never forget “the days when we were all wannabes.”
It’s a powerful moment but a fitful one. Forever didn’t achieve its goal of introducing a new brand of Spice to the 21st century. The girls broke up yet again for another hiatus with more solo efforts as the band members started to branch out of just music and became professional celebrities. Reality shows, game shows, and memoirs followed, and Forever became all but forgotten in the enduring legacy of the Spice Girls’ first two albums.
Spice Girls returned several times for well-received reunions, most notably for a critically acclaimed appearance at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. In 2019, the Spice Girls embarked on a tour of the UK, selling out at all the stops. (This time, it was Beckham who declined to join). Though “Holler” and “Let Love Lead the Way” was on the setlist, fans were there for “Wannabe” and “2 Become 1”. Incredibly successful, the world tour established the Girls as nostalgia acts, evoking memories of getting ready for a night on the town, fun slumber parties, or school dances. That legacy is wrapped up in Spice and Spice World. Forever is the admirable yet, unfortunate blip in their career. One that has quickly become relegated to the footnotes of their extraordinary story.